In the refugee camps of Bangladesh, children not much older than toddlers walk around with babies balanced on their hips; their parents either murdered or confined to their tents riddled with fever. An outbreak of diphtheria is sweeping the camps and a heady smell of spice and sewage fills the air. During the day, you can almost be fooled by seemingly high spirited children shouting ‘how are you!’. But behind every smile is a desperately sad look of emptiness. One boy says he hears screams at night as children are pulled from their tents by traffickers. Others are mute from the trauma of what they witnessed before arriving here.
This is the everyday reality for the 670,000 Rohingya refugees – 60% of whom are children – who have fled violence in Myanmar in the past three months and ended up in destitute conditions in the Bangladeshi town of Cox’s Bazar. But this Christmas, you can make a real difference to their lives.
We’ve teamed up with UNICEF, who are working in the camps to provide vitally needed aid, including services and supplies that will help prevent and treat diseases, protect children and provide safe spaces for them to learn and play. Just 27p could buy one bag of a peanut paste for treatment of malnutrition – two to three bags a day for two months will save a child. £5 could buy 10 doses of the measles/rubella vaccine, or £10 could provide 3,000 water-purification tablets. Together, let’s try and ease the pain for those who have experienced unimaginable atrocities.
Every night, Minara relives the moment her parents were shot dead in front of her – the panic in their eyes as they fell to the floor carved into her mind forever. ‘They were killing, raping and chopping the heads off anyone they could catch,’ says Minara, 16, whose vacant expression is as common as it is tragic among children in the refugee camps in Bangladesh. I’m here with the singer Jessie Ware to meet some of those who have taken refuge from violence in Myanmar, in what the UN has called ‘a textbook example of ethnic cleansing’.
The Rohingya, a Muslim minority in Buddhist Myanmar, have long been a persecuted group, yet the abuse heaped on them for years barely compares to what has happened to them in the last three months. On 25 August, the Myanmar military started their latest onslaught and tried to drive the Rohingya out for good.
Ask Farmina where her dad is and she replies, ‘The military chopped my father.’ She is just two years old and saw the murder first-hand. Her mother, Hasina, 25, also watched in terror as soldiers shot her husband and 10-month-old baby and stabbed her seven-year-old son. ‘They punched the knife repeatedly in his stomach,’ she cries. All she could do was grab her two other children and run. ‘It was like the earth closed in on me,’ she trembles. ‘I was shaking, nearly fainting and blind from my tears.’ For a month, she didn’t sleep and ate biscuits from passing villagers, until she eventually managed to get a boat across to the camps in Bangladesh. She’s been living here in squalor ever since.
In a malnutrition centre UNICEF has set up with the NGO (nongovernmental organisation) Concern, Jessie bounces a 12-month-old baby on her knee, whose body is so tiny she looks a fraction of her age. She giggles as Jessie plays peekaboo and sings Twinkle Twinkle Little Star to her. Later, we visit a UNICEF-run Child Friendly Space. Jessie is shown pictures the children drew when they first arrived. They depict military men with machetes, burning bodies and weapons everywhere. ‘They were images that I couldn’t bear to think they’d seen, let alone had printed in their imaginations in such detail,’ Jessie says.
The question now is what will become of these children; young survivors mired in a stateless misery. Some here say they will only go back if they’re recognised as citizens, others insist they’ll never return home. Benjamin Steinlechner, UNICEF’s spokesman based in Cox’s Bazar, has worked in humanitarian crises all round the world and says he’s never seen one on this scale before.
Today, Hasina and her two remaining children are still wearing the same dirty clothes they arrived in three months ago. Her son Mohammed, four, has been tense and malnourished since he witnessed the massacre. ‘I’m worried he’ll never be the same again,’ Hasina says. ‘They killed my husband and children. We want justice, we want our rights and we want to be able to go back to our country.’
We leave with a pitiful feeling that we’ve barely scratched the surface of untold tales of loss. But, at the very least, Minara’s story ends with a flicker of joy. After she arrived in Bangladesh, she spent a month thinking she was the only member of her family to survive. However, two months ago, she spotted her cousin, Amina, 30, in the camp. ‘We ran to each other and didn’t let go,’ she tells us while gripping Amina’s hand tightly. ‘I miss my parents unbearably, but I don’t feel so alone any more.
Singer Jessie Ware, ambassador for UNICEF, shares her thoughts on our visit to Bangladesh’s refugee camps
When Hasina told me her story, it broke me. Her little girl is two-and-a-half, but looks smaller than my 15-month-old. She tells me about watching her children die. We were crying together. Straight after our meeting, the UNICEF community worker took her to the hospital to be treated for a skin infection. She is just one example of countless others who are suffering, but thank God we could help and open her eyes to some of the therapy she can get. For the rest of the day, she didn’t leave my mind. I selfishly tried to imagine myself in that position – having to watch my husband and child be killed. It’s madness that more people don’t know about this. The reality here is horrific and unreported. I need to tell as many people as possible about this and I need to donate. Just £5 treats 10 kids for measles and rubella vaccinations. That’s nothing when you think what we spend at Christmas. It’s been heavy and heart-breaking and I feel very lucky that I get to go home and cuddle my daughter tightly and kiss my husband. We must spread their stories and make others take action. You can’t not if you understand the magnitude of this problem.